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Lessons from Citizens Concerning “Starting Points” in Discussion

IF conducts projects that result in reports containing contrasting policy possibilities so that others may have the benefit of “starting points” in their own discussions of policy areas. Presumably, a helpful report could assist other citizens in getting an initial sense of the breadth of a topic, could suggest some of the significant questions that might arise in the exploration of a topic, and could outline some possibilities that panelists in organized discussion projects found worthy of development.

Our participants in more informal citizen discussions of our reports generally appreciate the fact that the possibilities in these reports are not policy recommendations and that the reports themselves are invitations to further discussion. As with much of IF’s work, we are in a constant process of discovery about what works in terms of reports with what types of participants.

At this point we have sponsored over sixty citizen or “public” discussions of IF reports, many of the initial ones being facilitated by IF Fellows and associated faculty. We also have the experience of eighteen public discussions of IF reports conducted by independent contractor facilitators. Feedback from contract facilitators has been a very rich source of learning about what makes for helpful “starting points”.

Much of this feedback stresses that less is more.  Participants in citizen discussions often feel burdened by report materials that are lengthy and complicated. Participants appreciate concise statements of the possibilities that reveal policy direction at a glance. Lengthier materials are appreciated for their background and the examples they often provide, but are seen more as a discussion manual at the disposal of the facilitator.

Discussion participants value their time and do not like to discuss redundant or marginal possibilities. It quite easy to see how longer-term project panelists who delve into a topic for a year or more can come up with a great number of possibilities, including some that are developed more out of sense of completeness than a sense of launching discussion. However, those who volunteer to spend no more than three or four evenings in discussion expect reports to be more manageable for their time frame.

Discussion participants also seem to feel that how the reports are organized (or how the facilitators reorganize the possibilities in them) has a major influence on how discussions flow. Some possibilities are conversation starters while others generate little energy. Participants also seem to appreciate the opportunity to initially discuss the topic covered by the report in a general way, before they delve into the possibilities.

Adjusting to these participant preferences will be continuing challenge and source of learning.